Novelists are sometimes urged to eliminate the past-perfect tense from their sentences, and copyeditors are sometimes trained to search out those auxiliary “hads” and lop them off from their verbs. What exactly is the past perfect? And what’s wrong with using it?
The Past-Perfect (Pluperfect) Tense
According to CMOS 5.133, “The past-perfect (or pluperfect) tense is formed by using had with the principal verb’s past participle (had walked) (had drunk). It refers to an act, state, or condition that was completed before another specified or implicit past time or past action (the engineer had driven the train to the roundhouse before we arrived) (by the time we stopped to check the map, the rain had begun falling) (the movie had already ended).”
In short, the past perfect creates a flashback.
Flashback as a Literary Device
Flashback is a useful device in storytelling, a way to catch readers up on an event that happened before the story in progress. Sometimes it’s a simple, one-verb digression that readers may barely register as a flashback; other times the trip to the past may expand to whole paragraphs, pages, or even chapters.
Although flashbacks can expose inefficient plotting when they’re used badly (“Finally, she faced her enemy—luckily, she had studied karate many years ago”), they have long been exploited for effect, even when used extensively. Think of Scheherazade’s nested yarns in One Thousand and One Nights, or the frequent digressions Gabriel García Márquez uses to layer the past with the present and future in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Whatever a writer’s motive for employing flashback, there are reasons to minimize use of the past-perfect tense, as well as some ways to get around it.
Had This, Had That, Had Had
When readers are immersed in a story that’s interrupted by a detour to the past, we can’t help feeling suspended and slightly anxious not to forget where we are. It’s as if we’re being asked to put a thumb on the page while the narrator flips back a few days or years or centuries to fill us in on something. The momentary unease isn’t resolved until the action returns to the present.
For readers trying to keep track of a story, the past-perfect “had” is an effective reminder that we’re still in flashback mode. However, the repetition of “had” gets annoying, especially if the pluperfect of the verb “to have” is in play, resulting in the unlovely “had had” (“Lee’s boss got credit for the invention, although Lee had had the idea first”).
Cheating the Past
The trick to writing an extended flashback without so much repetition is to start out with past-perfect verbs and then segue to the simple past for a while. This allows readers to relax into the story of the moment and stop worrying about the one we’ve temporarily left behind. Near the end of the flashback, slip back into the past perfect briefly as a reminder to the reader that the story has been wandering, and then return to the normal narrative past, with all the usual options for verbs.
Novelist Ha Jin does this gracefully in A Free Life (New York: Vintage International, 2009). In the following extract, bold font shows the past-perfect verbs. The first four start off the short flashback, then the pluperfect is dropped for a while, then it’s resumed with a single use (“had asked”) that serves as a transition back to the story Jin had left behind for a moment:
He was still unnerved by the lingering impact of the recession, which had lately forced another shop at the plaza out of business. The past summer his restaurant had made only $1,000 a month, and the Wus had had to withdraw money from their savings account to pay bills. Tammie had made much less than before too and complained a lot. Nan encouraged her to look for a more lucrative job elsewhere if she wanted, but she said things would come around, and she stayed. For that he was grateful. Although more people came to eat after the summer, the business wasn’t as good as it should have been. Pingping had asked Janet to let her make more necklaces and earrings, but the jewelry store was faltering too and couldn’t stock more inventory at the moment. What disconcerted the Wus most was that if someday they couldn’t come up with $1,000 for Mr. Wolfe at the end of a month, they might lose their home. (264–65)
The tactic shown in a nutshell in this extract also works for much longer flashbacks, so that the heart of the story from the past can be written in the same tense as the main story and merely framed by instances of the past perfect for the sake of introducing it and transitioning back.
As for the awkward “had had,” Jin’s works well enough. But when it doesn’t, there are alternatives. One is to simply find a different verb (“the Wus had been forced to withdraw money”). Or, when a pronoun is an option, contract the first “had” (“they’d had to withdraw money”).
The past perfect is a perfectly respectable tense, essential to clear writing and an excellent way to introduce a flashback of any length. Attempts to banish the pluperfect wholesale are misguided. But as with any repetition, too much is too much, and writers and copyeditors will do well to manage their pluperfects thoughtfully.
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Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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